June 2, 2023

While many employers are reevaluating their health plans to ensure their workers have accessible and affordable care, they may be forgetting an essential part of everyday health: dental care.
Nearly half of insured Americans skipped dental visits or recommended procedures due to cost, according to a 2021 survey by consumer-spending resource ValuePenguin. Not to mention, access to dental care is not always readily available, especially in rural America. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 60% of counties do not have access to an orthodontist’s office. 
“You cannot have a healthy body without a healthy mouth,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sulitzer, chief medical officer at SmileDirectClub, a teledentistry platform. “Oral health relates to general health in many ways, but we underestimate the fact that the mouth is connected to the rest of the body.”
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In fact, the American Dental Hygienists Association estimates that nearly 80% have some form of periodontal disease, or gum infection. If a patient has a gum disease, where bacteria has become trapped and left to decay in the mouth, this can lead to an inflammatory response, increasing the risk for poor cardiovascular health, diabetes and stroke. Dr. Sulitzer notes that crooked teeth only make it easier for food particles to get left behind and decay, despite attempts to brush and floss thoroughly. Additionally, the teeth may excessively grind together, causing pain in one’s jaw joint or even sinus problems.
“You benefit from straight teeth beyond just cosmetic reasons,” he says. “It’s easier to clean and care for your teeth. But there are significant barriers to better oral health.”
According to Dr. Sulitzer, orthodontic treatment can cost anywhere between $5,000 and $8,000 for the braces alone (this does not necessarily account for visits to the orthodontist, retainers, X-rays or other diagnostic tests), and most health plans do not cover orthodontic treatment for anyone over 18 years old. Meanwhile, workers would have to take at least a few hours off to attend an appointment — if they are lucky enough to have an orthodontist in their community. 
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Dr. Sulitzer encourages employers to consider expanding their dental care plans, and be part of removing barriers to oral health. But to do that, employers will have to tackle affordability and access. Fortunately, telehealth models are not exclusive to primary healthcare. Platforms like SmileDirectClub can reach “dental deserts,” and cut down costs because of their ability to keep preliminary visits or consultations virtual, explains Dr. Sulitzer. 
“We squeeze out the inefficiencies of unnecessary in-person visits and do it for 60% less than a traditional setting where you would get braces,” he says. “In a virtual setting, doctors can easily examine teeth through 3D imaging, instead of sitting there trying to look while patients keep their mouth open.”
Dr. Sulitzer hopes that teledenstristy can be an effective, convenient care route for patients and dental professionals alike, making it easier for employees to seek help and avoid serious health conditions down the road. SmileDirectClub has already worked with two million patients, partnering with insurance companies like Aetna and UnitedHealthcare to offer its services as part of a bigger health plan. However, patients can access the platform individually, and employers can help cover costs with either an $89 per-month plan or a single payment of $2050. 
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Even if it’s not through SmileDirectClub, Dr. Sulitzer advises employers to start paying more attention to their dental benefits and the limits of its coverage. 
“In essence, better dental benefits lead to better health and less healthcare spend,” says Dr. Sulitzer. “And it’s another mechanism that helps attract and retain good employees.”
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